India has a grand plan to bring back its vultures

The scavengers.
The scavengers.
Image: Reuters/Ricardo Moraes
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India has a vulture problem, and it’s not the one you think. In the past 15 years, the country’s vulture population has declined by a whopping 99%.

There are currently about 100,000 vultures left in India, compared with 40 million of them in the 1980s. The rate of decline has slowed in recent years, but Asad Rahmani, a former director at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), says the vulture die-off represents the fastest decline of any species in the world.

Vultures may not make good pets, but they are an important part of the food chain. They feed on animal carcasses, preventing the spread of deadly bacteria and fungus into the ground and water. Studies have also shown a direct relationship between the decline of vultures in India and the spread of deadly diseases like rabies. “The potential human health impact of rabies associated with the vulture decline is found to be significant,” one 2008 study concluded. (More bleakly, the study’s authors found that rabies increased with an increase in the dog population, which vultures used to keep in check.)

The Indian government wants to fix this. Last week, environment minister Prakash Javadekar launched the Gyps Vulture Reintroduction Programme, the first of its kind in Asia. As part of the program, two Himalayan griffon vultures were released into the wild in the northern Indian state of Haryana. Javadekar said he hopes the program will restore India’s vulture population to 40 million in the next decade.  

India’s vultures haven’t always needed conservation: For many years, their numbers were robust. But in 2003, BNHS found that an increasing number of vultures were dying of kidney failure, which they traced back to the presence of diclofenac—a drug used to treat pain and inflammation in human and cattle—in animal carcasses. In 2006, the Indian government banned veterinary use of the drug.

“Diclofenac is a wonder drug for cattle and humans, but is toxic for vultures,” says Vibhu Prakash, principal scientist at BNHS. “So we told the government and found an alternative for it.”

Challenges remain. Prakash, who is involved in the new reintroduction program, says diclofenac is still available in small quantities, and is still being given to cattle. And experts say that even with the ban, breeding programs will be necessary to restore India’s vulture population.

“[The ban has] significantly slowed the decline, but we still have a tiny fraction of former affected population left,” says Chris Bowden, a globally threatened species officer of the UK-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and program manager of SAVE, a campaign to help save South Asia’s vultures. Bowden calls vulture extinction in India ”a very real and ongoing risk.”

Then there are the natural challenges. Vultures have a slow breeding time (pdf): They start breeding by the age of five or six, but can give only one egg per year. Worse, 50% of the newborns die once they leave the nest.

Prakash says the perception of vultures as ugly can also make them a hard sell for conservation efforts. “Watch a vulture soar to the sky and you’ll know how handsome it is,” he says.